Just add water

With retail, restaurant and residential space the Oxo Tower is a truly mixed development but unified by a strong flavour of design. Nicky Churchill gives us a taster and Box Products provides the tenant’s view

The regeneration of the South Bank has been a talking point for some years, but until recently there has been little noticeable progress. During the past 12 months, however, the stretch of riverside between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars has come to life. At one end, the Greater London Council’s legacy to south London – County Hall – has been converted into private apartments and an aquarium; at the other, the Coin Street Group has been steadily converting buildings and replanning the streetscape of Upper Ground. But the project which has attracted the most attention to date is the Oxo Tower, a mixed-use development which opened to the public last September.

Known originally as Stamford Wharf, the building started life as a power-generating station for the Post Office, and subsequently became a processing plant for the Oxo company when the tower was built in 1930. It is now the property of Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) which purchased it from the GLC in 1984 as part of a 5ha site. At the time, covenants imposed on it prevented it from being used for the development of offices, and instead confined use to an approved community scheme.

But the idea of the Oxo Tower as a mixed-use development actually started a decade earlier when local community groups presented a scheme in opposition to plans for office development in the area. Designed by architect Nasatyr & Lawler, the scheme encompassed the development of both the main riverside building and the barge house building at the rear, with a new central section linking the two. Retail outlets, eating areas, a visitors centre and five floors of residential space were all accommodated. It was submitted to the planning authorities in 1980 and granted planning permission in 1983. One year later, CSCB secured the site.

Throughout the project, the refurbishment works have essentially been driven by the availability of both private and public funding. Demolition of the central area and the structural renovation of the main riverside building began almost immediately. But it wasn’t until architect Lifschutz Davidson came on board in the early Nineties that things really got underway.

Design Account

Lifschutz Davidson developed the scheme still further and as the work progressed, so the brief was fine-tuned though never strayed too far from the original overall concept. By extending the south-west corner of the riverside building (essentially squaring it off), circulation suddenly became more logical and the central section of the development Рnow redesigned as a covered mall with a tensile fabric roof Рcould be extended to the full length of the building. The ground floor provided the perfect frontage for speciality shops with the smaller workshops situated on the walkways above; the second floor was turned into a riverside caf̩ space; five floors of flats were made available for those living or working in the borough and the double-height eighth floor, initially envisaged as a gallery or function area, was touted as a vast dining space in an era when restaurants were becoming both grander and larger.

Central to the refurbishment of the riverside building are three new ten-storey cores, one at each end of the building and one in the central section. These form a figure of eight “racetrack” plan with the main circulation concentrated directly underneath the now-famous Oxo Tower. This central core contains two sets of passenger lifts (access to the residential floors is separate from the commercial and public levels) and further storage spaces which lie empty awaiting the completion of phase II.

The first three levels of Oxo Tower Wharf house the commercial spaces – retail at ground level and workshop units on the first and second floors. As yet, the retail spaces are unoccupied, but the workshops are slowly bringing life to the building. These units range in size and are accessed directly by timber walkways cantilevered off the edges of the floors. These in turn link to the corridors around the cores to complete the “racetrack” circulation. Unlike the retail spaces, the workshops come complete with glazed façades, revealing the columns which support the building. Specially designed shopfronts form part of a system of components which allow doors and panels to be interchanged, and signage and shopfitting elements to be integrated into the unit. There is no lighting on the walkways themselves, instead fittings have been inserted inside the workshop units to reflect light on to the walkways at night.

Eighth floor

Underneath the new aerofoil roof structure is the restaurant, bar and brasserie, designed by Lifschutz Davidson for Harvey Nichols. With a design schedule of just five to six weeks, and a 12-week fitting out period, which included putting in new air conditioning Рit is arguably the pi̬ce de r̩sistance of the building. Separating the bar/brasserie and the restaurant is a public viewing gallery, which affords magnificent views across the river. It is reached by going around the sides of the central core and passing through what is essentially the entrance to the eating areas on each side. Privacy is maintained by rotating cabinets that can be closed off whenever the flow of tourists gets too heavy.


Second floor

The second floor is dominated by a riverside café/bar designed by Apicella Associates, which runs the full length of the building. The space has been empty for nearly two years, apart from the occasional high profile private party, but is soon to have new life breathed into it by restaurant group Simpson’s of Cornhill who appointed Apicella (DW News 4 April).

It is a long narrow space accessed from the east, south and west sides of the building with continuous glazing (and again magnificent views) on the north (river) side. The historic form of the building has been enhanced through a clever use of materials and colours. Heavier finishes such as slate flooring and timber furniture are concentrated at the core of the building, while closer to the windows, timber flooring is used and the furniture takes the form of circular aluminium tables and elegant Arne Jacobsen chairs. But it is the colours which are so striking with a palette of lime green, red, bright blue and dark blue chosen from the Jacobsen chair range and reflected on the columns and window bays.

Phase II

Phase II of the Oxo Tower scheme will involve the restoration and extension of the adjacent barge house building to provide more workshops, an exhibition space and a Thames Discovery Centre. It will be linked to the main building by a series of tented structures, each with a central opening glazed “eye” to let light in and provide ventilation. The space will be surrounded by elevated galleries linked together by movable bridges and stairs, while underneath the mall becomes a natural venue for entertainment and public events. Also on the drawing board at Lifschutz Davidson is the development of a floating lido on the river, with a 50m Olympic-length pool. Both these projects are currently awaiting funding.


Oxo Tower Wharf

Client:Coin Street Community Builders

Architect:Lifschutz Davidson

Eighth-floor bar, brasserie and restaurant

Client:Harvey Nichols

Architect:Lifschutz Davidson

Second-floor food court

Client:Coin Street Community Builders

Architect:Apicella Associates

The tenant’s view

The main attraction for moving to the Oxo Tower was a chance to open a showroom where we could expand our trade and retail range. We were also attracted by the building, its location, and the prospect of joining a community of multidisciplinary design-led companies.

On our arrival, Harvey Nichols was completing its restaurant refurbishment on the eighth floor, the second-floor riverside café, also recently refurbished, was attracting media attention and interest from prospective restaurateurs, 78 cooperative flats had been occupied, 33 retail workshops were available for designer-makers, together with ten specialist retail shops to be let on the ground floor.

Each applicant wanting to take workshop space at Oxo has to attend an interview with South Bank Management Services (SBMS) to assess the quality of its work and also to ensure a balance of disciplines operating within the complex, the intention being to establish a new centre for quality contemporary design.

This vetoing process also applies to the retail spaces. SBMS has committed itself to the independent specialist retailer avoiding the lure of the high street chains. While this is obviously important to maintain the culture of the complex, eight months into the wharf opening we are yet to see a shop open which suggests that retailers are waiting for the rejuvenation of the South Bank before they make a commitment.

Another incentive in coming to the Oxo Tower was that David Sainsbury and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation were awarding ten grants of 6000 for design excellence to help designers and designer-makers intending to take up space at the Oxo Tower. Box was fortunate enough to receive one of the grants, which has been offset against annual rental charges.

The designer-maker units range from 17-52m2. The units are situated on the first floor, riverside and rear of the building, and on the second floor, rear only, the front being the café. Prior to fit-out, the units are supplied with power, water and phone lines. The interior surfaces comprise a shuttered ceiling, a screed floor, stud partition walls and glazed shopfronts.

Box chose a second-floor unit which, although it doesn’t have the advantage of a river view, is a double-height space with a south facing walkway. As we are adjacent to the lift lobby, it also benefits from a full-height window on two sides.

Box, along with most other tenants, has divided its unit as a dual function office/work area and showroom. At the rear of the space is a raised office, fabricated from sprayed medium-density fibreboard, which incorporates a concealed work surface for assembly and prototyping, a computer workstation at ground level set into a cut back and under-floor storage.

A display system spanning the pillars adjacent to the lift lobby window incorporates seven revolving panels for mounting wall lights, while a bespoke trunking system at the front displays ceiling pendants and downlighters.

There is a very eclectic feel about the Oxo complex as you wander past jewellers, furniture makers and fine artists’ windows. The units are individual and finished to a high standard, but what is rare is the successful dovetailing of craft and design.

Having been one of the first design companies to open a showroom at Oxo, we have seen the complex slowly develop. The top-floor restaurant has undoubtedly brought more people into the building, but it has also prompted the need for more signage to encourage people to filter through the building and not just to hop on and off the lift between the ground and the eighth floor.

The first floor on the riverside is also consistently busy with people attracted by the units visible from the Embankment walk. Getting people through the building to the back will, however, take time and although the opening of the second floor café should help, it will require more designers on this side of the complex.

Ultimately, it will take phase II to help unify the whole complex.

Most importantly, the cooperative spirit within the building is thriving. SBMS recently held a party in the second-floor café to bring together all the residents, designer-makers and staff while also taking the opportunity to test noise levels for third-floor residents living above the café.

The residents also have their own newsletter and have recently approached the designer-makers for their own input. One resident claims: “Some neighbours have remarked that it’s like winning the Lottery, and, judging by the number of visiting friends who’ve called me a jammy bastard lately, I take their point.”

We enjoy working at the Oxo Tower and feel positive about its success. Our future here is very much linked to the regeneration of the South Bank, which is fast becoming one of the most prominent arts centres in Europe.

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